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date: 04 April 2020

Abstract and Keywords

The twenty-first century, barely two decades old, has already seen the production of two highly acclaimed modernist operas about troubadours, Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf’s L’amour de loin (2000) and Written on Skin (2012), by George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp. The troubadour has been invoked repeatedly in Western culture as a nostalgic figure representing an idealized past and purity of poetic expression, a kind of anti-Pierrot. The librettos of both operas depart from troubadour razòs, thirteenth-century biographical accounts that tell the true story of the genesis of specific troubadour songs, a historically “authentic” move that appears to affirm an attitude of nostalgia for the lost Middle Ages. While L’amour de loin largely delivers on this affirmation, Written on Skin treats its medieval source in a radically different way. The story is told from a vantage point outside historical time, so medieval and modern times are equally distant and can be referred to with equal ease and ahistoricity. Text, music, and stage design foreground similarities between the medieval and modern, collapsing historical distance and underscoring commonalities between the medieval and the modern. Drawing on recent literary-critical uses of the metaphor of historical time as a palimpsest, in which historical moments are superimposed, never entirely erasing what is underneath, the chapter suggests that the opera effects a striking reversal in which the future, not the past, is the effaced text of the palimpsest. Thus the nostalgia of the opera can be read, paradoxically, as that of the past toward the future.

Keywords: Kaija Saariaho, Amin Maalouf, L’amour de loin, George Benjamin, Written on Skin, Guillem de Cabestaing, palimpsest, nostalgia

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